The Return of the Running Back(s): Revisiting the Road to the Super Bowl

One of the most fascinating aspects of the NFL is how the league has gone about creating more opportunities for the passing game. Not surprisingly, the rise of the passer-friendly NFL coincides with the careers of two of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game, Tom Brady with the New England Patriots and Payton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts and now Denver Broncos. During the Bills championship seasons of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the team was led by its only Hall of Fame quarterback, Jim Kelly. What should never be forgotten however, is for many fans and players, as well as media pundits, the heart and soul of the Bills championship seasons during the Kelly era was the 2nd round running back with the huge chip on his shoulder, Thurman Thomas, also a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.

Indeed, it was during that first Super Bowl against the New York Giants that Thurman Thomas carried the team down the field towards the winning field goal, which as luck/fate would have it, went just wide right. Thomas was, in most viewers' minds outside of New Jersey, the MVP of that Super Bowl game. And for many Bills followers, he was the MVP of the team for many seasons. Indeed, he put up incredible numbers as a combined running and receiving threat. Below, I discuss why I believe the 2012 version of the Buffalo Bills will look and operate more like the Kelly-Thomas offense of the past than the version Chan Gailey put out in 2011. In so doing, the running game and the running backs will play a critical role in putting the Bills in a position to get to the playoffs and make a strong run for the championship. If I am wrong about where the Bills offense is headed n 2012, I believe it will be a huge strategic mistake, because the secret to beating Tom Brady and the New England Patriots lies in keeping the ball out of Tom Brady's hands, and the best way to do that is to have an offense that can sustain long clock consuming drives and put points on the board, with low risk of costly turnovers.

If we learned anything from the 2011 season, it is that the Bills have a powerful two headed monster of an offensive backfield. The most important challenge for the Bills offense is to find more creative ways to increase the number of touches for the team's two most explosive and dangerous players, CJ and Freddie. In this view, the secret to the success of the Bills and their offense in 2012 is not primarily the deep ball, but the running game and the screen game, which the great teams of Kelly and Thomas executed at an extremely high level for many years, and in doing so, they created the space for the passing game, long and medium, which led to the great receiving performances of James Lofton and Andre Reed. Yes, despite the NFL bias towards the passing game, the Bills success rests on its top flight backfield of Freddie Jackson and CJ Spiller. The more those two get the ball in their hands, the greater the chances for offensive and team success. Indeed, while many rumblers have focused on Fitz's low percentage of long ball completions, one of the most revealing aspects of Brady's past season was how infrequently he went deep. Almost all of his passing was underneath and in the intermediate zones. In fact, I watched Brady completely carve up the Cowboys in a fourth quarter last minute winning drive without even once throwing long or even intermediate long passes. The long ball is over-rated. The long ball is especially overrated when it is not necessary. My view is the obsession with the Bills' long ball game is both to be expected and largely missing the larger point: long balls do not win championships, offenses which sustain consistently long clock killing drives win championships.

The Bills have good reason to stretch the field, but it is not primarily for the reasons they publicly state. The primary reason the Bills want to stretch the field will be to create even more opportunities to free CJ and Freddie to take over football games. In other words, Chix is talking the deep ball all offseason while preparing for small ball in spades. And why would they not say one thing and do the other? Freddie and CJ are their best offense players and are extremely dangerous. They will be the heart and soul and strategic core of the Bills offense in 2012, and they will be the reason the Bills have a successful campaign, assuming they both stay healthy.

If we were to count the number of stories and comments about Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills wide receivers at Rumblings this offseason, and compared them to the number of stories about Freddie Jackson, CJ Spiller, and the Bills running game and running back offensive strategy, I think we would find that 95 percent of the ink has been devoted to discussing Fitz and/or Bills wide receivers and 5 percent or less has been spent talking about Freddie and CJ and their role in the success of the Bills offense.

I think this tendency to focus on what is not right or ideal is natural. Why spend weeks/months/thousands of hours talking about whether Mario Williams is a superstar when we know he is? Why spend huge amounts of time discussing whether Jackson is the key to the Bills offense, when even Fitz makes it clear he is?

Well, despite the tendency to be bored arguing about that which cannot be disputed, the problem with not talking more about CJ, Freddie, and the Bills offensive backfield's prowess is we fail to think clearly about what we have going on here, and what might be happening inside OBD this offseason on the offensive side of the ball.

During the review of CJ Spiller's game against the Miami Dolphins with Chris Brown at BuffaloBills.Com, offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins talked about how CJ had become a more patient runner, and had learned how to take advantage of what the offense offered and what the defense was doing, but that despite his substantial progress, he still had to learn how to attack the defense in certain situations. He mentioned that because CJ was forced into a wide receiver role for several weeks, he was now a much better receiver out of the backfield, and illustrated the play he made for a short TD catch in the red zone. He showed how CJ made a short 4 yard gain, where a year ago, his impatience would have led to fewer yards, and how these types of runs were the norm in the NFL, and critical to sustaining drives, which was critical to scoring and winning football games. In brief, Modkins made it clear that CJ was starting to get it, and starting to make the plays a runner of his talent should make in the NFL. But what struck me even more than the comments about CJ's improvement was the sense that the Bills were still, at their core, a team in search of ball control dominance. Gailey and his offensive strategy is not fundamentally about the long ball and the big play, it is about staying on the field through 4 and 6 and 8 yard plays which create the conditions which lead to the big plays. And if you think about the glory years of Kelly and Thomas, it was precisely their ability to sustain drives and stay on the field which led to the big plays, the quick strikes, and the explosiveness of the offense in short spurts of a quarter or two. After those explosive spurts, the Kelly-Thomas regime went back to ball control, sustained patient drives, churning the clock, wearing down the defense, and keeping the opposing offense off the field.

Despite the passer-friendly NFL rules, the Buffalo Bills secret to success will be more on the model of the Kelly-Thomas strategy than the Brady-Welker-Gronkowski strategy precisely because the Bills most talented players on offense are CJ Spiller and Freddie Jackson. In this view, as important as Stevie Johnson is to the Bills attack, and as important as the development of a deep threat (a la Don Beebe, James Lofton) is to the Bills' ability to "stretch the field," the true threat that is going to make most defensive coordinators lose sleep before playing the Bills is not going to be Stevie Johnson or TJ Graham, it is going to be figuring out a way to control the two headed monster of the Bills offensive backfield, the superstar Jackson and the superstar in-the-making CJ Spiller.

If the Bills do what I think they should do, we will see an offense that nickels and dimes teams to death, precisely because with an improved defense, ball control and moving the chains will be more important than trying to score 35 points per game.

With a quick passing attack and the running game and screen game of the Bills two best offensive players in CJ and Freddie, look for the Bills to make the running game, and the running backs, the new hot trend in the NFL. Chix drafted CJ Spiller with the 9th overall pick two years ago for a reason. But because of the tremendous play of Freddie Jackson, CJ Spiller has yet to truly demonstrate how good he is.

This year, Action Jackson and CJ Flash will make Chix look like strategic geniuses, and remind us again of why Thurman Thomas was the heart and soul, as well as the strategic core, of the greatest Bills teams and offenses in the history of the franchise.

In doing so, the Bills will also begin the process of putting an aging legend, Tom Brady, out to pasture, crushed under the weight of Dareus, Williams and Williams, suffocated by the relentless first down machine which is the Bills offensive juggernaut led by Action Jackson and CJ Flash, with Fitz liberally peddling the rock to the two headed monster tag team, up and down the gridiron, game after game, score after score, win after win.

Just another great fan opinion shared on the pages of

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